River Cliffs and Reformed Theology

The two of us walked, single file, through the coffee gardens. We were seventeen years old, barefoot, wearing swim trunks, and with inflated tire inner-tubes slung over our shoulders. The coffee cherries were ripening and we occasionally reached out, plucked one, and popped it in our mouths. The clear jelly between the red skin and the green coffee bean itself was deliciously sweet. Then the slippery bean itself could be pinched between forefinger and thumb, and launched at distant targets with surprising accuracy.

Tall sprawling trees spaced at regular intervals provided speckled shade for the short coffee trees below. We followed our dirt path naturally, having trekked it hundreds of times since we were in elementary school. We were, once again, on our way to inner-tube down the river. The horseshoe twists and turns of the main river of our Melanesian valley were such that we could walk ten minutes down trails on one side to a particular cliff to begin our trip, leisurely float down the river bends for forty five minutes, then get out at a different spot only five minutes from the compound where we lived. The trip included two sand bars, several set of rapids, two cliffs for jumping, whirlpools, deadwater, and the occasional abandoned raft made of banana tree stalks. One time we saw the carcass of a massive dead python. Thankfully, we never saw a live one.

Sometimes lots of missionaries and missionary kids would all take a big inner-tube trip together. Other times, groups of guys would go to make campfires on the sandbars and roast hot dogs, or challenge each other in “mud wars,” where soft clay harvested from the river banks was shaped into small round projectiles that splattered with satisfaction on your opponent’s torso (At which point he was temporarily “dead” and had to make his way back to wash in the river, hollering “I am a new man!!!” as he emerged from the water to enter the fray again.)

This particular sunny day it was just me and my close friend, *Calvin, going to float, talk, and perhaps pick up some hot fried skon flour balls on the way home. A simple river trip on a nice afternoon, like so many others. But our minds were not merely carefree that day, enjoying the familiar stroll through the coffee and banana gardens. Instead, they were chewing on some deep questions of the faith.

Calvin and I had been working out regularly together and while doing so, listening to John Piper sermons. Calvin had also been secretly devouring commentaries in our mission school library. While raised in dispensationalist circles, the two of us were beginning to wrestle earnestly with the claims of what was still a scary term for us: Calvinism. We were still in the early stages of our theological journeys, very much looking into something that we were sure couldn’t be true, but which had a much stronger case than we had ever realized.

The adult missionaries we spoke to about this particular theology generally discouraged us from looking into it. This of course only added fuel to the fire. We began to try to hash it out on our own, armed with CD sermons, library commentaries stealthily checked out, and our friendship. This river trip was one of many similar discussions we had during those final two years of high school.

This particular river trip stands out to me though. I remember it as a bit of a turning point, not because my convictions necessary changed that day, but because I admitted something out loud to myself for the first time. Something not contrary to, but consistent with, the God I knew from the Bible and my own experience – that if God is who he says he is, then in a contest of wills, He is the one who must ultimately win.

We had arrived at the small cliff that marked the point we embarked on our inner-tube journey, usually by jumping off of said cliff twenty feet into the river below. We sat down on the edge to survey the water, making sure we couldn’t spot any trees that had been pulled in during rains that might pose a hidden danger under the water. One of our schoolmates had a leg impaled one time jumping off this very cliff.

“So what do you think about irresistible grace?” I asked Calvin, as we scanned the brown water.

“Well, it seems like it would fit with passages like Romans 9 and Paul’s story, right? But I’m not sure, what about the passages that talk about people rejecting God? Doesn’t that count as resisting?”

“Yeah, like what Stephen says to the Jews before they kill him. They always resist the Spirit. How can you really name a point irresistible if there’s such clear examples of people in the Bible actually resisting?”

“Though actually,” Calvin countered, “As I remember, I don’t think it means we can’t ever resist, I think it might mean God will break that resistance for the ones he’s chosen.”

“Oh. But what does that mean, then our resistance isn’t real? That it’s a sham?”

“No, of course not, that would mean we couldn’t be responsible for unbelief, right?”

“Right…”

We sat in silence at the top of the small cliff, legs dangled over. I popped in one last coffee cherry I had saved, and spat out the skin.

“I dunno though,” I continued. “Something tells me that if my will and God’s will gets into a contest, God should be the one who wins. God should win. I don’t know how exactly that’s right with free will and all, but that’s what seems right in this universe. He should win in any contest against a little human like me… shouldn’t he?”

We sat and looked out over the river and the banana gardens on the other side of it. The question lingered. The cicadas hummed their rhythms in the trees.

We both sensed it was time to get moving. We spun our T-shirts and tied them around our foreheads like bandanas, preparing for the cliff jump. Throwing our inner-tubes off the cliff we made a running start for the edge, hollering as we jumped off, and plunged into the chocolately-brown jungle water below.

I didn’t realize it as I hit the water that day, but the Calvins had led me to admit an important point. God wins. He overcomes our resistance whenever he wants to. My mind wasn’t ready to concede that fully yet, but deep down inside, I knew it.

*this is his real name, and a fitting one for the topic of our discussion that day

Photo by Andres Hernandez on Unsplash

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